Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review: The Hurt Locker




Warning: There are minor spoilers below. Read at your own risk.


Enjoying a good war movie after you've been there, done that requires a bit of finesse. The casual moviegoer doesn't watch closely for errors in rank, patches, vernacular or procedure. They simply want to be entertained for a couple of hours. A veteran, conversely, is tortured with an onslaught of technical blunders that the average viewer will miss. Filmmakers must walk a tightrope to appease both sides; technical and accurate enough for the discriminating military crowd but still accessible to viewers who don't know the difference between CAS and SAF. So far, no Iraq-themed movies have walked that fine line. The bar has been set ridiculously low; Redacted, the reigning champ of tasteless war movies, makes Stop Loss look like A Bridge Too Far. But don't let the sad state of Iraq movies keep you away from the cineplex this week. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is not without its narrative problems, but it's a solid and dramatic entry that can satisfy both sides of the fence.

The story follows a three man team of EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) techs in the final month of their deployment in Baghdad in 2004. The team is headed by SSG James (Jeremy Renner), a reckless cowboy that routinely puts his life and the lives of his men in constant danger. The movie's epitaph lingers on the screen long after the words fade. War is a drug. It is clear from James' first mission that he feeds off the adrenaline rush of bomb defusing at any cost. When he should be wearing his suit or utilizing a remote-driven robot, James goes right for his clippers, wearing nothing more than his uniform. His two subordinates, Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghy), quickly grow weary of James' vigilante ways. As James becomes more cavalier with his work, the calendar slowly crawls toward the date they are supposed to redeploy. Sanborn and Eldridge briefly discuss fragging James to save their own skins. With James in charge, they figure, it's only a matter of time before they get killed.

The way the team goes about their missions is completely absurd. The three men drive alone, all over Baghdad and its periphery, in a single Humvee. No escorts, no convoy, just a gun truck and three soldiers. To leave a FOB in the real world, you need a minimum of three trucks, and even that is stretching it. In one scene, the solitary truck arrives on an empty street where soldiers should be setting a cordon. James, puzzled by an empty Humvee in the road, finds an infantry platoon hunkered down in a courtyard like a box full of helpless puppies. One of them manages to point him in the direction of a suspected VBIED. Only then do soldiers beyond the EOD trio emerge to cordon off the area and evacuate local Iraqis.

In a later scene, James leaves the base by himself to confront an Iraqi man about a local boy that peddles DVDs on the base. I had to bite my tongue from erupting in laughter when James, left by his hostage taxi driver, had to run all the way back to base dressed in fatigues and a sweatshirt. He couldn't have been more obvious if he had shot his pistol into the air and shouted, "COME AND GET ME!" His life expectancy would have been measured in seconds by that point.

I understand why Bigelow kept scenes mostly free of extras. The audience can only take so many characters in combat gear before they all start looking the same. Directing EOD to a possible bomb is tricky and cumbersome in combat. Striving for complete accuracy by showing each step of the way would bog down a movie that relies on suspenseful and a fluid narrative. The time between finding an IED and its eventual destruction can flow into hours of tedium that climax into a few moments of spectacular explosions. The script is taut and disciplined, willing to trim away the superfluous moments and get to the core of what EOD techs do. The rest of the war drops away in the margins and the audience is left with the essence of three men doing incredibly dangerous work. There is no war, or even earth, beyond the cordon. Just three soldiers left to tinker with homemade destruction.





My chief complaint about the film is that it goes too far with this view. Besides a scene with a team of mercenaries, the team is alone outside the wire constantly. Civilians can overlook that, but those with field experience might be rolling their eyes at yet another scene involving James cutting the right wire just in time. I've seen dozens of controlled detonations, and I can't think of any that had an EOD tech waltzing up to the bomb to clip wires. That's what the robot is for. It does happen, but not as frequently as the writer has you believe.

In one of the final scenes, the team is called out to assess the damage of a VBIED detonation. James spots a possible escape route for the triggerman, and in a wildly implausible decision, takes his team into three separate alleys in the dead of night. Shockingly, one of the men is nearly carted off by militants. Instead of a close call changing the way James thinks about his leadership, he keeps on with his reckless self. In the end he learns nothing. Of course, who knows what happens when he comes back to the FOB to find a stack of Article 15s.

I don't think it was out of neglect that such unrealistic moments crept into a generally realistic movie. I applaud the efforts of the technical advisers that worked on this film. The movement of the soldiers, particularly inside an IED factory, was textbook perfect. They operated in concert, double clearing hallways and moving with an air of urgency and flow. Combat scenes from Home of the Brave and Redacted looked like they were filmed in Brian de Palma's backyard. The Hurt Locker, filmed in Jordan, has an authentic feeling that is light years ahead of any Iraq movie released. They nailed the environment, the crushing paranoia of watching Iraqi bystanders eyeballing you, everything.

Toward the end of the film, James is back home, crippled with Sudden Civilian Syndrome. He gazes at a wall of breakfast cereals in a grocery store, confounded about the sheer amount of choice. It is here where we see James suffering from combat withdrawal. In Iraq he was on his game, disarming bombs with a few snips. The EOD suit he wears is his real skin. When it comes off, he's an alien on a planet he doesn't understand. As he explains to his infant son, there is only one thing he loves in the world. His body is home safe, but his heart and mind are still in the desert.

The (few) criticisms I've read are largely without merit. From Breitbart's Big Hollywood, dueling bozos of bromance Alexander Marlow and John Nolte both decry the characterization of Iraqis in the movie. This is a part of the narrative that should follow reality as close as possible, and it succeeds for the most part. Outside the wire, you shake kid's hands, you kick around a soccer ball and you act like a decent human being. But not for one second should your guard come down when it comes to the locals. Nolte feigns outrage about a scene involving a taxi driver running a roadblock. After a tense standoff, a soldier takes down the driver and violently handcuffs him. With what I imagine is a straight face, Nolte takes umbrage with the quote, "If he wasn't an insurgent, he sure as hell is now." Man, that was a favorite joke of mine! I said that about a man who owned a courtyard where I found two Molotov cocktails. Moments before he opened his trunk for us. It was full of whiskey, a rarity to see in a Muslim country. We laughed and pretended to stumble around drunk, but after I found those cocktails and the IP shoved his face into a brick wall, we weren't laughing anymore. I joked that next time, there would be a spring loaded boxing glove that came out.

Nolte doesn't realize that most people weren't too happy to see us, or consider the possibility that combat operations are a societal irritant. No, that is too complex a notion. He just decides to phone it in as a liberal slight and call it a day. There must be a shortage of veterans in West Hollywood (tip: if someone describes their residence with a cardinal direction, they probably have a gargantuan chip on their shoulder). Nolte could have passed his hissy fit about Iraqis to someone who knew what they were talking about. Quoth the Noltmeister: "The [Iraqi] men are alternately terrorists, a menacing presence, victims, the butt of jokes or utterly clueless." The movie is about guys who go find bombs buried in the road. What kind of person lingers around that environment John? You guessed it. Terrorists, menacing civilians, victims and clueless people.


I can agree with Marlow and Nolte that the order from a full bird to let an insurgent bleed to death is out of place, poorly staged and irrelevant to the plot. I could see what they were going for, but it translated horribly to the screen. Things like that do happen, as some of you might remember (long story short: we watched some insurgents bleed to death, and we watched a blindfolded guy die in slow agony after his house exploded and fell on top of him). A field grade officer ordering his men to let an insurgent bleed out is over the line though, and should have been left on the cutting room floor.





It's a shame some people can't look past their narrow view to enjoy the best Iraq movie to date. Though flawed with a serious case of the WTFs, The Hurt Locker more than makes up for it with technical prowess and unbelievably tense moments. In the only theater in Austin currently playing the movie, I heard a steady stream of gasps and "Oh shit!" moments in a nearly packed house. That kind of audience involvement is a testament to how well crafted the story is, regardless of the basic absurdity of the plot. General moviegoers will have plenty to rave about, and seasoned vets can walk away satisfied if they willfully suspend their disbelief for a couple of hours. I'm sure your wife or girlfriend won't mind that you stop whispering "That totally wouldn't happen" every five minutes.

Final Verdict: 3 1/2 Burning Cars out of 5



Update: West Hollywood is a town apart from Hollywood? Holy crap. I guess H-Town reached critical mass of people like John Nolte. A Manifest Douchery, westward to the sea!

31 comments:

Nick said...

Bravo.

SSG Dirty Al said...

Thanks Dude you just saved me some money. I'll wait for the DVD. Yeah, my better half gets tired of hearing, my all my techno remarks during military movies.

Ms. Missive said...

You were way too lenient. It should have gotten 1 out of 5.

CI-Roller Dude said...

...I'm not even going to wait for the DVD...I'll skip this dumbass movie.
Maybe OIF/OEF Vets should start a protest on Hollycrapwood.
You can never outrun an explosive device...det cord "burns" at 27,000 feet per sec... the rest blows up just about as fast or faster.
When the Real EOD showed up for a SVBIED who had a dude, they just waited until the insurgent cut the tape off his wrist and crawled out of the car...they were not going to risk their lives to save that asshole.

13 Stoploss said...

solid. seems you've found your niche, dude.

the teeth said...

Nice post, apart from one minor quibble having nothing to do w/ the main thrust --

The jab about cardinal directions is pretty offbase, at least for the given example. If someone lives in West Hollywood, they don't live on "the west side of Hollywood" -- they live in the city of West Hollywood, which happens to be to the west of Hollywood, a district of the city of LA. You can't fault a fellow for naming the city he lives in.

And a more concise rebuttal: "East New York".

Alex said...

teeth,

I stand corrected. I didn't know it was a separate town. I've seen too many people attach a direction to their hometown to signify stature. When someone said they were from "West Plano," what they were saying was they were better than the poor dirtbags from East Plano.

Thanks for the clarification.

TE Lawrence said...

Dude -- you may want to check out the Wikipedia page for West Hollywood and find out why that city may have an interesting relationship with the military...

Alex said...

Lawrence,

I skimmed the page and found nothing of note regarding a connection with WeHo (oh please) and the military. The line "City legislation also bans the sale of handguns, prohibits smoking in public places" probably doesn't sit well with a sizable portion of the military. What is the connection?

My point was that Nolte has a negligible connection to a part of society he seeks pass judgment on. He has a certain view of soldiers and how they should behave, but the problem is he doesn't seem to provide any real world criteria to make those calls. The same problem goes for some liberals who seek to project an image of victimization for those who deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. They don't have any connection, so they fill in the gaps. That is where the rift between civilians and soldiers/veterans arises: people who are unwilling or unable to inform themselves but nevertheless pontificate on what a soldier is thinking and how they should behave. It's tiresome.

Ryan said...

You guys are too hard on Nolte. Big Hollywood is the one site trying to bring in-the-closet conservatives in Hollywood out into the open.

Incidentally, it's not unheard of for EOD techs to run like that considering the movie takes place in 2004. Shit, I worked with guys that ran like that. Yes, I'm a tech.

Alex said...

Ryan,

That's why I was careful not to say no one would ever act like that, especially in a time when EOD operations in that capacity were still a new frontier. I knew some pretty reckless guys too, but my limited interaction with EOD involved nothing but professionalism. It's Nolte, rather, who laments the lone wolf characterization as impossible. I appreciate Nolte's status as a trailblazer, but that does little to mitigate his flippant remarks.

Jax said...

Good review, I'm actually excited about seeing this one despite the flaws. Ever war movie has major flaws, if they just made them to keep a solid story, I'm all for it.

NUGHT said...

i too fell you were a little lenient dude. yes i agree that it looks like iraq and that the goal was too keep up the suspence. i know its hollywood. I just think that when there are numerous errors that could and would be easily corrected without disrupting the storyline, sespence, or overall message, then they should be corrected. when they are not, its a huge let down. this movie could have been so much better and so much more accurate with just a couple handfuls of minor adjustments that wouldnt have changed the story, message, or nature of the movie... i think the movie as is, would be a good starting point to reshape and sculpt a great movie... if this was were the movie was at in conceptual stage, then it would have been easy to change this and that to really authenticate the movie without comparmising on the elements to make it great....

i think when you have great elements mixed with horrible elements it leaves you with a blah feel... fix the horrible and you have a great movie..

Greyhawk said...

A great review. Maybe some day I'll pony up 3 bucks (four for ten dollars) for a DVD...

Hate to pile on the nit pics, but "He gazes at a wall of breakfast cereals in a grocery store, confounded about the sheer amount of choice." Not if he just got back from Victory in 2004 he didn't.

Alex said...

NUGHT,

I try not to take the lapses in reality too seriously. Like I said, would you really want to watch a bunch of grunts keep eyes on a trash pile for three hours while EOD does route clearance at three miles an hour? The reality bending was done for the benefit of the story, not because they didn't know better. We're never going to get a truly accurate movie. Honestly, it'd be boring as hell. I wouldn't want to watch a bunch of guys bullshitting and smoking cigarettes on a roof all day.

I think this is truly a transitional movie for greater things to come. The Hurt Locker set the bar higher for the next war movie. It's rough around the edges and ridiculous in spots, but it's a step in the right direction toward a modern war movie that nails it on all fronts. The next wave will be better...at least I hope so. I don't want to sit back and bitch about how fucked up a movie was. I'd like to have a movie we can call our own. The Hurt Locker isn't it, but the next one could be.

Hawk,

I didn't quite mean it that way. When I came home, I had a lot of difficulty deciding what I wanted. Stuff as simple as ordering dinner didn't feel so simple anymore. That same feeling poured out of James on the screen. It was one of the few moments that really hit home.

NUGHT said...

alex i understand and agree with what your saying..... i think your missing what im saying... im not looking for an accurate 6 hour long route clearnce mission... Thats boring, I know..

quick clearification, EOD doesnt do route clearance. Engineers do. I am and Engineer who happends to be working with EOD so i kinda know both sides...

What i was trying to say was that you could change the script and some scenes that add little to nothing to the movie and inject others that would... you wouldnt be changing the story, flow, or feel of the movie, just its dipiction. I understand that sitting on an IED waiting for EOD can take hours sometimes. Mostly because the 9 line never gets pushed up all the way to the EOD main. alot of times they get stuck at at some bat. level toc while they try to figure out the correct procedure on how to get ahold of us. the guys on the ground are completely unaware of this...

Break down of an EOD mission.. Real World...

1) convoy finds an IED in sector and cordons it off and calls the battle space owner with a 9-line uxo report.

2) the battle space owner then pushes the 9-line up to EOD.

3) at this point we have 15 minutes to be rolling.. all TC's go the the CP to get the 9-line and a quick 2 min sitrep, while the joes get the trucks up and staged online ready to roll.

4) we come out of the CP jump and the trucks and haul balls to the grid. we can get to any point in baghdad in 20 min. max..... so from the time the call hits EOD's desk we are on site with in 35 min.

5) once we arrive we assume the inner cordon and push the on scene unit to the outer cordon.

6) EOD does there thing and we either take the uxo to a blast site to blow it up, blow it in place, and/or go home...


that wouldnt be hard to incorperate, but still thats not even necassary.

i think that if they were to get the procedural things right or even close it makes for a much better movie.. you can add a securtiy team without putting them into the movie that much... you can make it a realist 4 truck convoy without having to spend much time on that element... you can have a unit on site 300 meters in front and behind the IED without really have to do much to the story... but that changes the scene with the sniper, because theres only three EOD guys fighting a sniper. it changes the scene where one of the techs almost gets taken. again with the security there that woulnt happen. and it would change a few other scences as well. there are things in the movie that really dont belong... the going outside the wire with a sweatshirt on and walking back in... that doesnt happen and really it adds nothing to the movie...

I guess what im saying is they could have incorperated the correct proceduraly elements or something near that which in turn would have forced them to change alot of the unimportant inaccurate scenes. with these changes you have the room to add the authenic feel of 4 trucks, more than 3 guys in all of iraq, and no EOD teams running down alleys and hunkered behind a berm fighing a sniper.. i mean really, why that hell is that in there.. EOD doesnt do that...

im not looking for 100% accuracy, i just would like it to be beliveable. something that could happen or that has. i do agree that this has set the bar and that the next line of Iraq movies should be able to surpass it. hurt locker like you say did get some stuff right. they did touch on some elements that no other movie has and they did it damn well. this movie is a good building block for future movies on iraq. but as it stands, its short comings and lack of realism drown out all of the really good elements in the movie..

but hey thats just my opinion.

Anonymous said...

I found some ruminations on this movie by Roger Ebert to be a pretty interesting sidebar to his review, and possibly worth a few minutes of your attention (if you haven't read it already). You can find it at:

http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2009/07/not_how_the_army_would_fight_aliens.html

Keep with the updates! You're a good voice to have in the blogosphere.

James in Dallas

Brandon said...

For what it's worth, there are quite a few of us OIF/OEF vets working in Hollywood in all manner of positions. Unfortunately we have yet to have any sizable amount good producers and directors with serious .mil experience. Maybe in 20 years?

Anonymous said...

My biggest issue is of course the ACUs in 2004. I was in that AO with the 1st Cav in 04 and ACUs where nothing more then pics in the Army Times. I believe the film makers original intent was for the film to be set in present day or at least 07 the year the movie was filmed.

Alex said...

I thought about that too, but I think it has to do with abundance of ACU uniforms when they were filming it. They probably raided a military surplus store instead of making costumes, and I would think DCUs would be hard to find in large quantities. At least his Mich covering matched his kit.

Anonymous said...

I disagree in regards to to the uniforms. In 2007 when the film was made it would have been far easier and cheaper to get DCUs and woodland gear. Being the film was made on a lower budget, I have to assume if they where going for an 04 look they would have gone with cheaper. The international version of the film(released in 08)that I saw had no hard dates in it. I really believe that the US distribution company ask that the 2004 date be added. It would not surprise me if some suit in Hollywood said something lame like this "if the American people see this as present day they will view the film as to taboo and will not go see it. But if we make it set 5 years ago it will be OK". The film was shot in mid 2007 and released in Oct of 2008 internationally, I have to assume they had issues finding the film a distributor and made what ever changes where needed to find the film a US home.

Alex said...

Good point, though it would have made sense to set the movie in 2004 from the very beginning. Those were the EOD frontier days, when IEDs were becoming not only more prevalent but more complex and deadly. Wild behavior likes James (however unlikely) would fit those times more than present day, when SOPs are clearly defined and established. But who knows, they might have just looked at the news and copied what they saw. They are wearing digital now, so they must have been wearing it then.

Danelle said...

My husband and I stumbled upon your blog and I would like to thank you. Not for your service, LOL but for this review. A another failed attempt by mindless Hollywood.....Personally, his run through Baghdad in a hooded sweatshirt in ACU pants was my favorite.

Oblio said...

Great posting and review, Alex... I appreciate your candor and honesty, both in support and in spite if this flick. I heartily agree with your observations about the other war flicks mentioned... what is your opinion of FULL METAL JACKET, a film I found most brutal and honest.

I am a hard-core motorsports fan, and watching movies about racing make me roll my eyes and sigh at the ridiculous things that happen on-screen, but I also understand that a screenplay is, by design, a mutation of the original story and/or premise. With the exception of the movies LE MANS and GRAND PRIX, most all other flicks about my sport of choice suck badly.

Again, thanks for your blog and excellent viewpoint.

MikeR said...

Alex, we liberals can't take the hit for Nolte's nonsense. Big Hollywood is an explicitly conservative site.

I think his angle here is that all American soldiers always act honorably at all times, officers don't ever do dumb things, wouldn't ever do anything offensive regarding Iraqi civilians, etc.

The funny thing about Nolte's approach (and propaganda, in general) is that it doesn't accurately depict what Americans over there have to go through. No wonder so many people are either unaware of or in denial of the problems so many vets have upon coming home. I just heard a great piece on NPR on the new GI bill; I'm glad to see it pass and I hope it helps.

Keep up the great work, I love to hear about this stuff from someone who has been there.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the balanced review of the movie and most important about reality. Eventually the fight is not against Hollywood, but ignorant people and politicians who take advantage of them.

Seren said...

Nught, I'm with you. I was civilian DoD in Iraq 2006-07, and although I went out in the field nearly every day, we didn't have a lot of interaction with the "real" soldiers ... yet the flaws in this movie were so ridiculous even to me, it really distracted too much from what they did get right. It wouldn't have been that hard to make the scenes/plot believable, still portraying the emotional content and tension. I don't know if it was laziness or ignorance, but it's hard for me to excuse.

I also agree though, that it sets a higher bar for the next Iraq/Afgh movie, because the FEEL of Hurt Locker was right. Here's hoping ...

Great review, and great discussion. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

So - anyone change their mind now that it scooped at the Oscars? I am no expert on the US military, apart from when they try and kill me, but even I hooted at the run through bandit country and the splitting up to go down three different alleys. My main wince was when the EOD, alone as usual, bumps into some haj who turn out to be Brits, presumably SAS. Thereafter, the EOD take charge, snipe the bad guys while the SAS get all girl's blouse.
Unlikely bit of gung-ho. But hey - I had to suffer Braveheart, so now you Americans can live with this.

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't a "realistic" war film be about civilians who were killed and maimed and not about soldiers at all?

Jason_M said...

1. Suspect the film is to fraught, too painful for some of the dismissers posting here.

2. What I love about this movie is that it is about the characters and it is that, as Alex points out later, that is a good sign about Hollywood's awarding this best pic. I challenge vets to tell me that they have not met people who embody part of each of the main characters, or the asshole "wild man" colonel.

3. Alex rocks.

4. Also, it's fiction, a movie, a story, not a documentary.

5. "accuracy" depends on your point of view.

6. Thank all of you who served for your service and for speaking out.

Jason_M said...

On the run through Baghdad, yes, unrealistic, silly, etc. but the purpose of those scenes were not. They were to show him becoming unhinged and were, I think, a bit hallucinatory and meant to be so. Technically incorrect; emotionally true.